The Iconic Art of Bob Gruen

Aquarian Weekly 7/24/12 Buzz

THROUGH THE VOLUME LENS – THE ICONIC ART OF BOB GRUEN

Eighty percent of success is just showing up. – Woody Allen

I liked being there. – Bob Gruen

If you’ve wasted just a fraction of the time I did in my youth, hell, my entire life reading rock magazines, popular music compendiums and studying the history of rock and roll with a myopic fervor usually reserved for religious vocation, then there is a better than two to one shot you’ve come across hundreds of images captured by the camera of Bob Gruen. Bob GruenFor over four decades the passionate eye of one of the world’s leading photographers has visually dissected the most important artists of the rock era; The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, KISS, Aerosmith, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen and Prince to name a few from prog rock to punk and beyond. A new documentary, Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen by Grammy Award-winning filmmaker Don Letts beautifully frames the essence of Gruen’s art and its origins.

The 66 year-old Gruen casually mentioned what was originally a four-part British television special chronicling the many arcs of his work back in June when I visited his West Village studio/apartment/archive bunker. Getting there was half the fun; a maze of long hallways and two elevator trips into the center of an artist’s complex, where nearly every inch of its cramped but charming environs is crammed with overflowing file cabinets and stacked shelves of Gruen’s work. More a portal into a life spent smack-dab in the middle of rock history than an office space, the minute you step inside it’s as if you’ve entered the rare intimacy of the performance world from spotlight to backstage to the after-hours private parties.

It is also a place where Gruen has entertained the likes of John Lennon, Joe Strummer and KISS, whose leather-clad, Kabuki-faced members tried on his civvies for a CREEM magazine photo shoot that became the iconic Dressed To Kill album cover. “I took the guys in The Clash back here once, cooked them dinner and showed them my New York Dolls live tapes,” Gruen told me, as we sat on the couch where “the most important band in the world” once dined.

These and many more anecdotes, all illustrated stunningly with a parade of gorgeous rock and roll moments forever frozen in time by Gruen’s unique talents, color Letts’ film, which not only features commentary from some of his famous subjects like Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Billie Joe Armstrong, but includes Gruen’s own insights and the stories behind it all.

Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen is an exhaustive filmic biography. It takes us back to the burgeoning professional photographer’s early days traveling with Ike & Tina Turner (featuring Gruen’s famous picture of a gyrating Turner onstage in a multiple-exposure masterpiece of five images at once) through his years as John and Yoko’s private NYC photographer (in the studio, on stage and in their home) then onto his years trolling Manhattan’s underground punk scene from Max’s Kansas City to CBGB all the way through his travels and friendships with The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Green Day, who today have entrusted Gruen to maintain their image as standard-bearers of the genre. The main theme throughout the film, which was part of New York City’s CBGB Festival, a three-day celebration of the famous dive on the Bowery that birthed the punk movement of the late-Seventies and where Gruen spent many a night capturing the mood, sweat and ear-splitting mayhem of The Ramones, Television, Blondie, and Talking Heads, among others, centers around Gruen’s edict to immerse himself in the heart of the action.

“Some photographers are adamant about not being edited. I’m adamant about getting hired again. I was very comfortable working with a band and helping them create the image they want to create.”

“Bob always seemed to just be floating around,” Yoko Ono muses in the film. “He was never obtrusive or demanding like other photographers. He was respectful and really cared about his subjects. John and I trusted him completely.”

Or as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong puts it; “Bob’s not a pain in the ass.”

“I want my subjects to be happy with the image my photographs depict,” Gruen told me back in June. “Some photographers are adamant about not being edited. I’m adamant about getting hired again. I was very comfortable working with a band and helping them create the image they want to create.”

Seeing a Bob Gruen photograph for the first or fiftieth time speaks volumes about a man who loves the artists and wants the fans, the ultimate arbiter of the rock experience, to get closer to their heroes and to better understand by a single image what listening to the music has already awakened. Quite simply, Gruen’s artistry enhances the experience of the music. His pictures represent in a very serious way an extension of it.

Gruen rode the crest of the budding craft of rock journalism long before music videos could bring home the images of rock stars. Kids, especially the younger ones like myself in the early Seventies, who might not have had the money or access to transportation to see their favorite acts as they rumbled through town (if they ever did at all) lived vicariously through the images exploding from the pages of Creem, Circus, Rock Scene, Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. Gruen’s camera filled in the blanks, added to our imaginations of a nether world of rebellion, riches and madness.

John LennonGruen’s best work treads the thin line of that madness, especially in the salad days of rock, as many of his shots, whether live concert photos or backstage meandering, seemed to border on or be completely out of focus. Soon, as he jokes today, it would become his “soft focus” style that many have aimed to mimic.

“There are more technically proficient photographers out there,” Gruen confidently states. “But I never went for the technically perfect shot, I went for feel. I wanted the person seeing the shot to feel what the artist was feeling at that moment, whether in front of a wild crowd or alone in a studio setting.”

This was a time, Gruen reminded me, long before pre-set digital cameras, when the pro photographer had to quickly perform many key maneuvers – adjust exposures and change lens – in the virtual darkness and controlled chaos of a rock and roll show: “Shooting a live performance is a wing and a prayer. I never had any idea if anything would come out or not. You hope you’re getting something, but the lights are changing, you don’t know what the exposure is, people are running around the whole time, you don’t know where to focus. It was fun, though. A lot of it was a guessing game. If some of the pictures came out all right, you were lucky and you’d get some good ones. If you take a lot of pictures you’re bound to get a couple of good ones and if only show the good ones then people think you’re good.”

Almost all of the subjects interviewed for Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen describe Gruen’s “technique”, whether proficient or visceral, as being almost nonchalant, especially in closed quarters in the after-party clubs or crowded apartments when the cream of the rock set would let their guard down to mingle and imbibe.

The Clash “Bob would be carrying on an intense conversation with you and suddenly, whap!, he’d snap a photo of someone a few feet away and get right back to you never missing a beat,” recalls rock journalist and longtime friend, Legs McNeil. “Then you’d see the picture weeks later and it would be fantastic! How did he see that?” Gaining incredible access to a host of huge rock acts during tours, on buses, in diners and hotel rooms, Gruen got the best shots, but knew where to draw the line.

“My theory has always been if I didn’t want to be shown in that light, I wouldn’t take the picture,” Gruen told the audience in a Q & A session after the film premiered at the Landmark Sunshine Theater on East Houston Street. “A good rule to go by was when the drugs came out, the camera was put away.”

Each of Gruen’s subjects echo the same sentiment throughout Letts’ film; he always displayed a respect and restraint unfamiliar to most rock photographers or the ever-present paparazzi. “Bob never did the usual, “Hey Alice, make a scary face’ bit,” recounts Alice Cooper in the film. And it was through that trust that Gruen was on a first-name basis with scores of rock stars, who had long given up letting anyone with a notepad, let alone a camera in.

“I never looked at this job as a journalist,” Gruen insists. “I was always a part of the lifestyle. I’m not looking at these people, I am these people.”

Gruen’s ability to see into the soul of the rock performer may have been fueled at his first professional shoot, the infamous performance by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965. Gruen explains in the film; “Everyone was booing Dylan and felt he was betraying the folk scene by showing up with a rock band, but I thought it was his way of saying that rock and roll was the new folk.”

The Sex Pistols

A few years later, after establishing himself as a solid freelancer, Gruen headed up to the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem to cover an Aretha Franklin show. It was there he literally ran into John and Yoko, where several camera-ready fans and pros were frantically snapping away. Lennon, in his usual smarmy style, joked that although he’d been photographed every minute of every day he never saw a single one. Gruen, ever the opportunist, shouted, “I’ll show you my photos!” Knowing the most famous rock and roll couple of all had recently moved right around the block from him, Gruen was true to his word.

Lennon was so moved that Gruen would hand off the pictures at their apartment (more to the point to yippie madman, Jerry Rubin, who answered the door) with no hint of wanting any favors from a Beatle, the two struck up a friendship that lasted until Lennon’s tragic murder in 1980. “That was the worst thing that ever happened to me, still is,” Gruen solemnly exhales, the memory still etched on his face. “People die, but not everyone gets murdered for no reason.”

Gruen’s work with John and Yoko produced a chronicle of their time living in Manhattan, the best of which are available in his 2005 book, John Lennon, The New York Years. These precious slices of life include the famous shot (Gruen’s idea) of Lennon giving the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty during his fight against deportation, and perhaps his most famous image, the ubiquitous “New York City Shirt” picture, which today festoons thousands of bootleg and official tee shirts, posters, stickers, etc. Just like KISS sporting his suits on the cover of Dressed to Kill, the shirt was a gift from Gruen, and when Lennon died years later and the photographer was asked to provide the seminal Lennon image for a memorial, without hesitation he chose that one.

“If it’s a good show, I’m driven to photograph it, I need to photograph it.”

“John died in New York because he lived in New York,” Gruen told me. “He died going home. I wanted that to be his legacy, his love for the city that I also love.”

It was Gruen’s love for New York that put him in the gritty innards of the downtown scene where he became one of The New York Dolls signature photographers. A band built upon the dying glam movement that bridged the Sixties NYC decadence of the Velvet Underground to the CBGB punk movement, Gruen worked tirelessly to help them conjure a variety of images.

“I loved bands like the Dolls and Alice Cooper and KISS, because they put on a show, on stage and in front of the camera,” cites Gruen. “They understood how much image mattered. They call it show business, so I always thought there should be a show.”

Gruen’s affiliation with the New York Dolls and Malcolm McClaren, would allow him to make his mark as the godfather of punk imagery; as important a statement as the music itself. Gruen set down for posterity the short-lived and wildly outrageous career of England’s most notorious act, the Sex Pistols. Given almost unlimited access to a band that made its bones abusing the media, Gruen’s pictures of the Sex Pistols, and most notably the doomed Sid Vicious, in their infancy holds a special place in the rock pantheon. Soon Gruen would be the American liaison for The Clash when the last true punk outfit embarked on one of the seminal residencies of the era.

Today Gruen readily admits he’s slowed his 24-hour rollercoaster lifestyle, limiting his talents to special events and working with many of the friends he’s made in the music business over a lengthy and groundbreaking career. His photographs hang in museums and many galleries around the world, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; a veritable who’s who of the long thread of rockers from Chuck Berry to Lady GaGa. Each one holds a special place in Bob Gruen’s lens; filled with volume, attitude and decadent glamour. Gruen says it best; “If it’s a good show, I’m driven to photograph it, I need to photograph it.”

For forty odd years, Bob Gruen showed up and took us all with him.

 

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Alice Cooper: American Treasure

Aquarian Weekly 6/20/12 Buzz

ALICE COOPER: AMERICAN TREASURE
The Coop Talks R & R Hall of Fame, Boring Bands & The Genius/Idiot Maxim

Alice Cooper is an American treasure and he knows it. Once the viscous, drunken villain of rock and roll and a threat to the very decency of our moral foundation has transformed into the clean and sober fist-pumping defiant champion of our hearts. “I’m lovable,” he says with a mischievous chuckle. But then Alice Cooper may not be in the mood to return the favor. Rebuffed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for decades, he was granted entry last year as the pioneer member of what he calls “the lunatic fringe” that will break the seal and let in all the maniacs. He’s also quite miffed at what passes for “great rock and roll bands” these days.

Alice Cooper

Currently sharing a tour with Iron Maiden, (one of the “lunatic fringe” long ignored by the elitist rock press) he is riding high after the recent popularity of his sequel to the legendary Welcome to My Nightmare (Welcome 2 My Nightmare), a title which he thinks is “so damn clever”, the soon-to-be released on DVD for the first time, “The Strange Case of Alice Cooper” and an enormous box set called “Old School”, which features a healthy sampling of the vicious, drunken villain days.

The Coop took time for our second chat in the last few years after a rigorous round of golf and a yearning to get back on the road by his lonesome later this summer into the fall.

The first question I must ask, and it has to be framed as any self-respecting Alice Cooper fan would: How important does the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame feel that it now has the great Alice Cooper as one of its own?

What I think it did was open the door to acts that were probably gonna have a hard time. When you get an Alice Cooper in it kind of breaks some new ground in there for bands like KISS or Iron Maiden. Even though we sold fifty million records, I mean, we had all of the qualifications to be in; it’s just that Alice Cooper’s image was that of the outsider and I think there are a lot of bands that are outsider bands. As commercial as KISS are, they’re an outsider band. So I think us getting in opened the door for harder rock bands.

For a Seventies kid, I mean, ignoring Alice Cooper? I know you had the theatrics, which unfairly always seems to put you in danger of the novelty label, but what you guys did as a band and your solo work defined rock music for that generation, especially as innovators. It’s as if the voters feel the need to ignore the impact of that period and the bands that dominated it.

Far more important for me was the music. It’s nice to have all the trappings and we did break a lot of ground when it came to our kind of shows, I mean nobody had ever even used up-lighting or down-lighting before us. We were the first ones to use truss lighting, which is still a big influence on what’s going on today. But the fact that the songs and the albums still hold up, I think it finally proves what we said all along: We spent ninety percent of our time on the music and like ten percent of the time on the theatrics. The theatrics came easy to us. It was the music that we really had to work at and I think we’re being cited for the music as much as anything else.

The music triggered a great deal of the theatrics from the beginning. Each of your albums always appeared to have a theme and a different characterization of the Alice that would inform the shows.

“Go out as far as you can on that limb and either be a genius or an idiot. If you’re an idiot, you fall off the limb and then you climb the tree and do it again. There’s nothing that says you can’t climb the tree again. But whatever you do, don’t stay in the middle. Never stay in that gray, mediocre area. Go out and do something that’s gonna startle everybody or that’s gonna make everybody think of you when they think of that.

To me, I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but I’ve always thought of everything in concepts from the very beginning. It always seemed to me that any song is conceptual. For instance, if you come up with a title, any title at all, I don’t care what it is, it could be “Welcome to My Nightmare”, so write a show around that. “Welcome to My Nightmare”? Okay, what does it consist of? All right, we’ve got a little kid that can’t wake up from his nightmare. Okay, that’s good, now what happens to him? So for me, right there, I start writing out the whole idea of the story and then I start filling in the details as songs. So, okay, there’ll be “Cold Ethyl”. She’ll be this fantasy love character and maybe she’s dead. I don’t know; let’s make that part of the nightmare. “Only Women Bleed”? Let’s make that part of the nightmare. It was always like that for me. I can’t not think in terms of concepts. It’s automatic to me. I think every album I’ve done has been a conceptual album in my head.

There was a great deal of pressure on you when you went solo with the original Welcome to My Nightmare, which was a Herculean undertaking; a multi-media idea from album to concert to film, etc.

Yup. It was a giant roll of the dice. I’m telling you, if it wouldn’t have worked…and I always tell bands this, and I just told the graduating students at the Music Institute out in California, “Here’s your choices; climb out on the limb and you’re either going to be a genius or an idiot.” (laughs) You know, go out as far as you can on that limb and either be a genius or an idiot. If you’re an idiot, you fall off the limb and then you climb the tree and do it again. There’s nothing that says you can’t climb the tree again. But whatever you do, don’t stay in the middle. Never stay in that gray, mediocre area. Go out and do something that’s gonna startle everybody or that’s gonna make everybody think of you when they think of that. So Welcome to My Nightmare was one of those defining moments of “I talk the talk, am I gonna walk the walk?” And Shep Gordon (longtime manager) and I and Bob Ezrin (longtime collaborator and producer) put all of our money into that show and if it would have been a failure we would have had to start all over again.

And you know the brilliant duality of what you just said is that in that show you are both the idiot and the genius.

And you know, I always have been. I’ve always wanted Alice to be this arrogant villain that’s also vulnerable. In other words, he may be – and I always liken him to an Allan Rickman type, you know, “Cancel Christmas!” that kind of overblown villain. But you just know at some point he’s gonna slip on a banana peel. (laughs) And at that moment, how does he recover? That’s the humor of Alice right there.

Sure, and you had mentioned the last time we spoke of the two Alices; the one when you were drinking heavily, the victim, and the one now that you’re clean and sober, the fist-pumping defiant Alice.

When I look at video from back then I see him as a total victim. Even his posture was a total victim’s posture and what was he singing about? What was happening? He was the whipping boy. Everybody hated him. And a lot of kids on the outskirts really related to that.

We sure did.

They related by saying, “I’m that guy. I’m the one everybody hates. I’m the one that doesn’t fit in”, so he was sort of the poster boy for all the misfits. So when I got sober I said, “I really don’t want to be that guy anymore. Now I want to be the guy who’s the controlling villain. I want to be Moriarty now, play Alice like that, and I think because of that transformation Alice has gotten a whole new life.

How has Alice Cooper stayed in the public conscience for so long? My four year-old daughter loves Alice Cooper. He is ingrained in the fabric of our culture. Where do you think Alice fits into our collective subconscious?

Welcome 2 My NightmareI think what it is, Alice was young and dangerous and vicious, and now Alice is more of a Vincent Price. I think Alice is woven into the conscience of America. I’m sort of an American treasure now. (laughs) The same way Iggy Pop is, guys like that who survived forty-five, fifty years in the business and they’re still doing it and just keep going. I think we’re not as dangerous as we are lovable. And that’s a great thing. It’s fun for me. I don’t feel the pressure of having to outdo myself anymore. I mean, we’re clever enough to make the show clever every time, but I’m not trying to outdo Nightmare.

First of all, it’s a different world now. When you do two or three theatrical things on stage people are just wowed, because everything is so boring out there right now. It is one of the most boring periods of music I’ve ever witnessed in rock and roll. I mean, the bands that are being touted as the great bands right now are the most boring bands. They wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the Seventies. There’s just no testosterone in these bands. It’s like these young bands are afraid to be rock and roll guys. They’re timid, they’re going, (whines) I… don’t…know….”

I talk to Steven Tyler, Iggy, Ted Nugent, all the guys who were the big image guys, and they’re all looking around goin’, “What happened to rock and roll? When did we get so pabulum?” You know, there are a few; the Foo Fighters are great. The Foo Fighters would have fit right in during the Seventies. I mean, they’re a Seventies band. Jack White challenges everybody. I love that guy. But I look at the charts or the cover of these magazines and the headline is “This is the greatest new band” and I go, “There’s an accordion in this band! There’s a ukulele in this band!” What’s wrong with these people? (laughs) Honestly!

So as long as they’re gonna do that, then bands like Aerosmith, Alice, Ozzy, The Rolling Stones, whoever it is, are going to keep chewing up the landscape. ‘Cause I’m not backing down! I’m gonna do the hardest show I can do. I’m gonna do the most edgy show I can do. I give credit to Dee Snider. I give credit to Rob Zombie. Those are guys who finally got their teeth into this thing. If it’s gonna be a show, make it a show! Boy, am I disappointed when I look around at some of these new bands. Wow, do we need a shot of adrenaline.

Speaking of which, you’re on the road now with Iron Maiden. Will the Alice Cooper fans get their just deserts?

Well, actually the new show won’t start ’till October. When we’re working with Iron Maiden as the guest stars, we’re only doing an hour. We’re going to be doing some of the theatrics, but all of its going to be the biggest hits. This band I’ve got is great. Ryan Roxy is back. I’ve got Oriente, Tommy Hendrickson. So I’ve got three great guitar players right there, and I’ve got Chuck Garric on bass and Glenn (Sobel) on drums and it’s gonna be a really tough, good band, and to me that’s all I can really do on this show. We’ll do some theatrics, you know, we’ll have fun with it, of course, but when we go out in October with our own show, basically it’s going to be an entirely new show.

All right, we’ll have to talk then. You’ll have to give me all the details.

Yeah, yeah, and honestly the stuff that’s being built right now and the stuff being put together for that is really exciting. We’ve had meetings with directors and stuff like that and it will be something that will really make people smile, ’cause it’s pure Alice.

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Dan Bern – Drifter

Aquarian Weekly 6/20/12
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DAN BERN – DRIFTER
Prolific Songwriter’s Ode to Perpetual Motion

I first heard a selection of the songs that ended up on Dan Bern’s brilliant new record, Drifter in November of last year in the lobby of a refurbished theater in Beacon, New York and then the next day during a promotional live web cast for a magazine in downtown Manhattan. He played a few more at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village that night and in late-December at Mexicali’s Blues Café in Teaneck, New Jersey. Separated from the eventual collected work, which both musically and lyrically segues in and out of each song as if psychic travelogue – a yearning to discover, hide, escape and return to a home that is at once geographical and spiritual – it was as if Bern were symbolically ushering the songs through a rigorous performance trial, first solo and then with his new collaborators, the creatively versatile Common Rotation.

Drifter - Dan BernLater in the winter, as is his wont, Bern sent me a rough mix of the material he wanted to put on the eventual release. For weeks I played it in my office, in the car, and in the background during gatherings of the local tribes, but it wasn’t until late one night that it hit me; this is as close to a running commentary on the American folk ethic as could be laid down in one place; a literal ode to perpetual motion; Jay Gatsby’s ride through the valley of ashes to his unreachable green light at the end of the dock.

Drifter is a statement; Bern’s, a generation’s, a genre’s; the effects of traveling on the traveler for good or ill. It is survival. It is change. It is acceptance. Serpentine movement as philosophical, ethereal, political, nostalgic, narcotic, and introspective on tracks like “Luke the Drifter”, “Raining in Madrid” and “Haarlem”, “Carried Away”, “Home” and “Mexican Vacation”, “I’m Not From Around Here” and “Love Makes All The Other Worlds Go Round”, which is the type of denouement that eases seamlessly into the epilogue of “These Living Dreams”. Many, if not all the songs deal with a transitory experience; aging, evolving, moving along through life observationally; it is also replete with an imagining of a better “place” through vivid dreams and visions of hope.

A concept record? Nah. Bern was quick to dismiss that on a late-night phone call in March, after I sent him a manically cobbled deconstruction of the record under the influence of my sudden epiphany. Hell, who isn’t swept up in the lure of the road? And what writer (and Bern is nothing if not one) has not tackled its seduction from Homer to Joyce, Horace Greeley to Woody Guthrie, Kerouac to yours truly.

“I think subconsciously you choose what you choose to tell your stories about, but it’s not a conscious effort on my part,” Bern explained when a proper interview commenced in early June. “I’m not clever enough to make up something and realize its metaphoric significance, though I do think it’s a beautiful thing when the listener acts as my interpreter and takes the ride to that degree. That’s all I ever want from any song. It’s what any songwriter can ask; that the listener wrestles with it and lets the ideas reveal themselves. For me, it’s all the stuff of my mundane little life lifted by the power of song and maybe, subconsciously, you’ll tap into these things because similar experiences come up in all of our lives.”

Bern’s protestations to the contrary, these songs are not disparate ballads or ravers, wise-guy sing-a-longs or political harangues, the likes of which he has mastered over 16 years spanning 18 albums. “Maybe this is my swansong for that character,” Bern says. “But then again, maybe it never goes away.” Or as he sings in “Luke the Drifter” (the title a reference to country legend Hank Williams’ non-deplume); “Go or stay, one or the other.”

Drifter is a singular vision of a journey, the infinite search through snapshots and notations of every can-kicking crossroad conundrum. “Ooh, I do my share, I knock about/Is anything gonna work out”? he sings in the hauntingly beautiful “The Golden Voice of Vin Scully”; as the interior echoes of the radio wave acts as a north star in a desert-scape Californian hymn worthy of Georgia O’Keefe’s pallet.

“Ultimately this stuff is therapy, isn’t it?” Bern muses. “Any literature is interpretation, the only difference being that most of the time you’re not talking to the writer.”

Drifter‘s topographical references are vast. We visit the Milky Way, the moon, Madrid, Hollywood, New York City, Capetown, Johannesburg, North of Seattle to the Mexico line, San Bernardino, Haarlem, the black hills of Ohio/Wisconsin to the Indiana mud, the Canadian border, Philadelphia, West Virginia, and the solar system. Then there is time travel as in “Mexican Vacation”, where a train moves the narrator through the anarchic landscape of a pre-historic American construct overrun with slave-traders as he professes his love for the “runaway slave girl”.

“The truth is I worked on this record three-times longer than anything I’ve ever done,” Bern sighs when confronted with the events of the past three and a half years. “It becomes this thing that every little change that occurs in your sphere you apply it.”

A sense of travel even appears when we’re stuck in the obligatory isolation chamber of the traveling musician, the hotel room, which is wistfully depicted in “Party by Myself”. Bern’s bittersweet sampling of embraceable loneliness and mind-altering inertia is not unlike being suspended in outer space or in a capsule, which appears, as in the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey to be still but is actually moving. Most interesting is Bern’s use of the two-dimensional image of Captain Kirk flickering on the tube; another iconic character set adrift “boldly going where no man has gone before”.

Kirk appears, as do all of Bern’s pop culture/historical figure references, brimming with symbolism, not the least of which is his nod to Jonathan Swift who penned the immortal Gulliver’s Travels and for whom the poet W.P. Yeats once described in his epitaph as the “world-besotted traveler”.

“I suppose the interesting thing is that these songs were written at different times, instead of a concentrated period,” says Bern when pressed again about this coincidental subconscious spate of songs with the central theme of the passerby. “I started to write songs like ‘Raining in Madrid’ and ‘Haarlem’ in those places, while ‘Capetown’ is sort of a flight of the mind. And then, you know, LuLu came (his two-year old daughter), I moved out here (from New Mexico to Los Angeles) and, yeah, I think that kind of sparked the whole thing.”

I count Dan Bern as one of my closest colleagues and in many ways a brother-in-arms. We have tracked the bloody grounds of political and social battles and acted as sounding boards for each other’s work for close to a decade. Both of us have fathered daughters within a few years of each other and watched our generation begin to take charge of all that we railed against in our youth; the destruction of the earth, the systemic killing of innocents, the segmental repression of society, the global economic power-play, and we even managed to elect our own leader of the free world, and yet watch in horror as the madness continues unabated.

“Yeah, that’s true,” Bern chuckles, as he usually does when confronted by larger issues before whittling it down to his own corner of the world. “But what’s true at the same time is we’re getting older and we have a feeling of our own mortality; we’re not young bucks anymore.” And then he makes sure I know that he doesn’t feel particularly in charge of anything.”I’m not even in charge of my house!” he laughs.

This may well be why Drifter is filled with the temporary escape provided by chemicals and booze, which pop up as playful landmarks along the way. Senses dulled just enough to continue the search for anything; integrity, friendship, love, comfort? “Will I see you in the street tonight?” Bern sings in “Raining in Madrid”, as if drifting into random social interaction. But in “Home” his search flirts with futility; “Like a vagabond out on the lawn, I was almost gone”, but then suddenly he sings; “Find out who will stick it through thick and thin, lose or win, it’s how you get some place.”

The passion of the search has certainly inspired Bern’s singing. He has never sounded better or more controlled, completely at ease with these wonderfully crafted pieces; each one fastidiously pored over with absorbing precision. Here Common Rotation’s honeyed harmonies and weathered accompaniment on trumpet and banjo (Jordan Katz), harmonica and saxophone (Adam Busch) and guitar and dobro (Eric Kufs) lend the songs a weight they crave, a deserving ensemble for their poetic resonance.

“The truth is I worked on this record three-times longer than anything I’ve ever done,” Bern sighs when confronted with the events of the past three-and-a-half years. “It becomes this thing that every little change that occurs in your sphere you apply it.”

The story of the making of Drifter could well have found its way into the work, as Bern and his ensemble, absent the umbrella of a record company this time around, sold songs, studio time, played private gigs and even composed personal jingles for outgoing phone messages for a host of donors all over the country; the time, expanse, and constant dissection of the project adding to its charm.

“The biggest thing is I didn’t have a wad of record company dough to go in and just do it,” Bern explains. “This record was done on everybody’s good graces and time. Money talks. It gets things done. It books studio time, it pays for musicians, it moves things along. And in a place like L.A. there’s all the people you want, but everybody’s doing a trillion things.”

Some of those people, like film songwriting partner, Mike Viola and a stirring guest appearance by the incomparable Emmy Lou Harris on the moving, “Swing Set”, serves the travel aesthetic well. We stop off into different voices and pass through musical styles, providing a station-to-station, truck stop ambiance of the rootless existence. “There’s a line through this record, for sure,” admits Bern. “And that’s why I worked so hard to get to a sequence that works. It’s like you wouldn’t routinely skip over a scene in a movie to get to the next one. Even though there are fifteen songs here, they all play a role. Basically if something’s on there, it’s because it wouldn’t allow itself to be thrown off. It forced its way in and wouldn’t let go.”

Bern says the sequence of the songs became “like an accordion” for months upon months, jumping the total from 15 songs down to 12 and in some cases just eight and then back up again. “I finally went to Chuck Plotkin (famed producer of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, as well as Bern’s 2002 masterwork, New American Language) and sat with he and his wife for two full afternoons,” recounts Bern.

“Turns out, I had the bulk of the run down, but he made a couple of important switches, which tied everything up. For me, if Chuck says it’s okay, then it’s okay.”

“I can’t tell you how much of my energy, attention, DNA is in Drifter.”

Once given the thumbs up from his musical sherpa, Bern quickly shifted gears and recorded 18 of his baseball songs with Common Rotation. Culled from nearly thirty years of work, which spans a century of the game’s most compelling characters and stories from The Babe to Barry Bonds, Doubleheader, aptly titled due to the 18 song list – a song an inning – will be released on the heels of Drifter on July 4 when Bern plays the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. “We just finished it six weeks ago,” he says excitedly, as if relieved to be free from the looming stranglehold of the Drifter marathon. “We just went in and did it all at once, boom; now all these songs I’ve been carrying around are under one roof.”

Beyond wrapping up Drifter and banging out Doubleheader, Bern hints that a third record of country songs, which he whispers may be the best of the three, is ready to go. “Probably for a good ten, fifteen years I was writing on average a song every ten days, like eighty songs a year, but now that seems paltry,” laughs Bern. “I pat myself on the back now if I can get through a tour without writing a song, allowing myself to stay present, because what writing does, as much as it’s this amazing thing that freezes moments, what you’re doing is freezing a rapidly approaching past moment. So while you’re scribbling and drawing your brain cells for a rhyme, maybe you miss that next passing cloud.”

And so here is Dan Bern, putting a ribbon on his troubadour life and turning his attention to the pastoral lore of the grand old game, which James Earl Jones so poignantly performed in Field of Dreams, a film more about the passage of time and the evolution of spirit than baseball. He could well have been reciting from Drifter. “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.” Or as Bern sings in the refrain of “Luke the Drifter”; “Oh, life ain’t tragic mostly/Life is magic somely “

“I can’t tell you how much of my energy, attention, DNA is in Drifter,” concludes Bern. “But I am so personally relieved to not have to think about it anymore on a daily basis. It’s a happy, guilty, candy pleasure to talk about baseball. I guess it’s just easier to talk about baseball than myself.”

Drifting….drifting….drifting along.

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Observations of a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer

 

Aquarian Weekly 5/9/12
REALITY CHECK

MAKE WAY, MICK JAGGER
Observations of a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer

Hello, my name is James Campion and I am a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That’s right. Me. Officially voted in with The Aquarian Weekly, America’s longest running music newspaper. Yes, siree. Right in there with Keith Richards, Elvis Presley and Alan Freed is jc from the Bronx, NYC.

Suck it, Lindsey Buckingham.

According to Sara Haber of The Syndicate, “With over 40 years of publishing, every issue of The Aquarian Weekly will be available at the Rock and Rolls Hall of Fame’s Library and Archives, which the company hopes to collect, preserve, and provide access to students, educators, journalists and the general public to broaden awareness and understanding of rock and roll, its roots, and its impact on our society.”

That means the entire volume of vile, radical, spastic nonsense that has emanated from the Reality Check News & Information Desk from August of 1997 to these very words (these ones too) are available in the great shrine to The Beatles, The Who, Bob Dylan, and some of the other guys.

Rock and Roll Hall of FameAlso words like “moronically feckless”, which appeared in this space on 10/6/10 to describe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, will be available to peruse. And while visiting there, we hope you also see: “And let’s be honest, the entire concept of having a shrine or snobbish observance of rock & roll is antithetical to everything the damn art form stands for in the first place, and second, and most disturbing, is it confirms what purist caretaker, Lester Bangs predicted and oft-times celebrated as its demise propagated by the over-intellectualizing arrogance of the ‘rock critic elite’.”

Ah, yes. It was so long ago, I could hardly remember conjuring it, much less typing it out and sending it to press. I was obviously filled with the kind of hate and rage only my sixth gin & tonic rouses. I was not thinking clearly, quite obviously panicked from lack of sleep and a crushing deadline. I have written far worse things about people and institutions and have been awarded handsomely for it. It’s all part of the magic of “weekly music content and social issues for all its readers” that Ms. Haber rightly opines.

Eat shit, Donovan.

And so, as a card-carrying member of the Hall, I can now visit Cleveland, if I lose a bet, and saunter through the doors of the glassed museum and wave my hand blithely at the dead-eyed matron at the front desk asking me for an entrance fee and puff; “Dear madam, I am an honored member here. I shan’t be paying for anything, in fact, I expect when I enter there be a long, red carpet for me and these homeless people I met four minutes ago; you know, a plus-three scenario for museum dignitaries.”

And to think, I’ve been missing my many trips to Bank of America during the bailout demanding to see the ledgers and asking them to turn off a few of the lights to keep the monthly billing down. I was owner, after all.

But this is much, much better.

Blow me, Metallica.

I suppose congratulations are in order for this paper, mainly for printing every half-baked, off-the-wall, borderline dangerous thing that’s come out of my head these past fifteen years (some kind of Aquarian columnist record, according to one of the many editors for whom this space has toiled).

I suppose congratulations are in order for this paper, mainly for printing every half-baked, off-the-wall, borderline dangerous thing that’s come out of my head these past fifteen years (some kind of Aquarian columnist record, according to one of the many editors for whom this space has toiled). But mostly for being a damned fine, unflinching and irascible example of underground press this nation has known. The Aquarian Weekly is one of the few independently owned newspapers left. No corporate overlords to skew the measure; stronger, as Jim Morrison once sang, than dirt.

I was proud to be a part of the wonderfully laid out tribute issue last week; I suppose that 9/11 cover of my horrible prediction in 1998 will follow me to the grave. Of course I had to put it in my second book, so there you go.

Plans are already being drawn up for the evening of the induction ceremony over at the Waldorf or some other swanky New York dump. A quick word with my esteemed editor and chief, J.J. Koczan has set in motion several irritating maneuvers that involve rotten fruit, stink bombs and a FUCK JANN WENNER tee shirt.

I expect, nay insist on being the first inductee ejected from a Hall of Fame, beating O.J. Simpson by a long shot.

Koczan warns that security is tight at these things, “lest anyone should actually get a close-up look at the dudes from Def Leppard.” Ouch. I never had problems with those guys, but then I never had to cover them. I found dealing with the assholes representing Radiohead to be a far fouler assignment.

It’s important to point out to many of the readers of this space online or within my mailing list that I have produced many a music-related story of The Aquarian over the years. It’s not all anti-social quasi-political rants. And what kind of tribute would this be if I didn’t properly thank this paper for giving me the opportunity to suggest and produce several cover pieces, including features on Ralph Nader, Alice Cooper, Lucinda Williams, Counting Crows, Tori Amos and John Waters, to name just a few.

Over the years, I got to spend quality time and in some cases befriend several heroes and artists I admire greatly, including Adam Duritz, Paul Stanley, Ani DiFranco, and one the best and dearest friends I have, Dan Bern. I got to hang with Prince and Walt Clyde Frazier at press junkets. I know Clyde wasn’t a rock star, but he dressed like one. I published two volumes of my work here and added Parker Posey and Rage Against The Machine to my enemies list.

But enough about this publication; it’s time for me to ring up the Hall of Fame and get me some swag.

Spin on that, Abba.

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The Uncommon Bonds of Common Rotation

 

Aquarian Weekly 11/28/11
Buzz

THE UNCOMMON BONDS OF COMMON ROTATION
Discovering the Truth in Lying with a Rare Folk Trio

I am riding shotgun in a rented van crawling up Fourth Avenue with Common Rotation, a road weary L.A. folk trio who has taken a one-day respite from supporting the Indigo Girls’ American tour to back their favorite songwriter on a stopover in New York. The songwriter, Dan Bern, is not only one of the genre’s most prolific composers and thus the band’s hero and mentor, but also its neighbor – along with Bern’s fellow movie soundtrack songster, Mike Viola (Walk Hard and Get Him To The Greek), who lives a few doors down. For the moment, Bern is sprawled in the back amongst the instruments and duffel bags playing scrabble on his smart phone; a touring ritual that I discover later over Indian food has been going on for months between himself and members of CR no matter where they are or the hour of the day or night.

Common Rotation

A mere five minutes have passed since our hurried salutations in front of Joe’s Pub near Astor Place, where the band would be playing a set before joining Bern on stage later in the evening. Normally, this would not be enough time to engage in a furious deconstruction of the Woody Allen film canon; the sudden cross-dialogue of which evokes a zeal usually found in the company of old acquaintances.

Crimes & Misdemeanors is the best Woody Allen movie,” pronounces the stout 34 year-old driver, Jordan Katz, Common Rotation’s all-purpose multi-tasker. Katz’s proficiency on trumpet and banjo, something he claims he picked up when the band wouldn’t let him play bass anymore, is only outdone by his more than credible maneuvering through rush hour traffic. His bemused smile and nifty tie and vest ensemble belies an almost wicked sense that his vehement choice of Woody film is not altogether serious.

A voice from behind intones, “Adam loves Celebrity!” The Adam in question is 33 year-old Adam Busch, a slight, enigmatic soul with a penchant to appear almost cranky enough to be lovable. Later, while riding in an elevator, I proffer that if I were in a band it would be Common Rotation, he leans dramatically toward me and whispers, “Run away…fast!”

Of course Celebrity, a film lampooning the Hollywood bullshit machine made by a New York wise guy, would fit Busch’s idiom as part-time actor. When informed that he looked so familiar that I was forced to remember him from an episode of the cult TV show, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, where he played a nerd villain, (he’s also played, among others, roles in “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House”) Busch sardonically replies, “Yeah, well, everyone has met someone who looks like me.”

As we quite literally run through everything Woody from Hannah and Her Sisters to Match Point, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Love & Death (Bern’s favorite) and of course Annie Hall, a nearly apologetic voice chimes in with, “C’mon, Manhattan.” And with that, the 33 year-old soft-spoken, bespectacled, Eric Kufs enters the fray.

One gets the feeling that this kind of stuff (chatting up relative strangers before donning instruments, clearing throats and whipping off a few ditties) happens routinely for CR; moving from one subject to another with the kind of ease in which they traverse the country, one town and one rented van at a time.

Kufs, guitarist and part-time handler of dobro (lap-slide) duties, and Busch, whose musical expertise ranges impressively from sax, harmonica and glockenspiel, begin engaging in a rapid-fire Woody Allen joke-off. I am, for the purpose of full disclosure, partly responsible for this mess, so I gladly join in.

This lively back and forth goes on for twenty or so blocks and a couple of avenues as Common Rotation heads up to the offices of a rock magazine to play live with Bern for a podcast. One gets the feeling that this kind of stuff (chatting up relative strangers before donning instruments, clearing throats and whipping off a few ditties) happens routinely for CR; moving from one subject to another with the kind of ease in which they traverse the country, one town and one rented van at a time.

It is how it is done the old-fashioned way; plugging a new record, as is God Keeps an Open Gallery, the band’s fourth and latest full-length offering.

Open Gallery unfurls much like my short time with the band, familiar and lively; as if you’ve discovered something new that sounds as comfortable as your most well-worn albums. There are teary ballads and gospel sirens, upbeat sing-a-longs and tender instrumentals, and across them all an enviable string of memorable melodies swept along on beds of wonderful three-part harmonies. Every note, Katz tells me, was rehearsed and recorded in the band’s living room.

“For some of the tunes, I was set up in my bedroom with the banjo, while Adam would be across the house laying down harmonica in his, and Eric was in the living room playing guitar. We’d just sort of roll out of bed, put on headphones, and start playing.”

The romantic notion of sharing suburban Los Angeles digs – Katz describes it as a sprawling California house, circa 1906, once owned by Gloria Swanson – brewing up the morning café, yawning out the cobwebs and getting down to making music together is not lost on Busch.

“Every one of our songs is basically a search for truth,” he says proudly. “I feel like you’re supposed to experience real things for people. I take it as a responsibility to share the experience with the audience. I would hope our live shows are always expressions of those little private moments that are sometimes forced to play out in public. There is nothing more fascinating than a couple breaking up at the next table or a man going through a crisis in an elevator; you’re invested in the wellness of that individual. Isn’t that where love starts, really?”

This search for truth is manifested in two of Open Gallery’s first three songs, the aptly named, “It’s a Wonderful Lie” and “A Reasonable Lie”, both written by Kufs and Busch respectfully, and stark reminders that the search could be something of a chore. This not-so coincidental reminder is on the heels of the band’s previous full-length studio recording and de facto title of its web site; Common Rotation is a Lie.

So what’s all this infatuation with the truth?

“All storytelling is a lie,” Kufs weighs in. “It’s always from one perspective. Even the most even-handed documentary is going to be in some sense coming from its own perspective. So to get to the whole truth is in itself a wonderful lie. Adam’s song deals with what we have to tell ourselves or our friends and lovers that gets us through; a reasonable lie.”

Dan Bern & Common Rotation“We all bring ideas in,” Busch adds. “Eric will come in with something and we’ll play around with it, and then Jordan might add a part, or I’ll have a lyric or musical idea. It’s a group effort, but Eric is the driving force behind Common Rotation.”

Kufs returns volley by making sure I understand that the trio’s relationship, as friends and fellow musicians, is an advantage to his compositions. “I know which of my songs will be for the band,” he states emphatically. “Because I know what everyone can bring to them and I don’t have to say much. After all this time, they know what I’m trying to achieve, what emotion, what theme.”

Open Gallery is by each member’s measure, the most complete vision of Common Rotation, yet the album is replete with guest appearances from the aforementioned Indigo Girls, which Kufs makes sure to mention are “the most supportive and giving artists and friends”. Contributions also include They Might Be Giants’ Marty Bellar and Daniel Weinkauf, neighbors, Dan Bern and Mike Viola, among others.

This atmosphere of the creative give-and-take provides the tracks of Open Gallery a sense of proper contemplation; craftsmen at work, selecting the right mood for a song, the requisite accompaniment, the singular phrasing.

“It was the economic realities of touring that brought us to this self-contained sound,” Busch admits. “We didn’t want to create something that the three of us couldn’t perform on stage. We forced ourselves to enhance what Eric was doing on guitar, whether it’s me and Jordon on trumpet and saxophone or adding the glockenspiel as an undercurrent. That’s why for the first time I think this record is a proper representation of what and who were are. I used to have to explain our records, but I just hand it to someone now and say, ‘This is us’.”

This type of “closing ranks” to produce an insular, singular sound that translates “the truth” of the band can only come from a comfort level provided by a solid background, relationships forged in youth and developed somewhere between the thick and the thin; the story of Common Rotation.

For Common Rotation, this is the place where it breathes, a true band, a gathering of talents presenting its wares; old-fashioned, uncommon, familiar.

The band originated first in friendship and then an uncommon bond in musical talent. Hailing from the same neighborhood in East Meadow, Long Island, crossing paths at Little League in middle school to sharing an admiration for Elvis Costello, especially Kufs and Busch, led to a songwriting kinship, a developed sound, and the obligatory local gigs.

Soon, Busch’s acting career led the band to relocate to California, which brought about an expansion of the act in the famed Living Room tours of its early days when CR literally played at people’s homes, captured in Peter Stass’ documentary, How To Lose, which chronicles the trio’s protest of Clear Channel’s monopoly on the musical touring market. A more old-fashioned route of record promotion is hard to duplicate, unless one mentions the ingenious concept of Union Maid, wherein the band set up a web site to post new songs for fans to download for free. This gave birth to an Internet fund-drive to help the band complete the recording of Open Gallery.

This may be why a reluctant swoon into maturity, a strange seduction with materialism and the constant specter of mortality creeps into what Common Rotation believes is its best work; close childhood friends playing, struggling, growing together as a movable feast for twenty years.

Finally arriving at the magazine on 29th street, the band uncoils like a machine; instruments out, tuning up, the voices warmed and ready. Bern counts off and it is as sudden as the Woody Allen debate in the van or the ease with which Scrabble bounces off cyberspace; four voices meshing beneath Bern’s staccato lead. “I just nod at these guys and they go,” Bern recounts when I marvel at the relative comfort in which CR melds into his back-up unit.

Much later, on stage at Joe’s Pub, the picture is complete; the rushing around, grabbing meals-on-the-run, the seat-of-the-pants Scrabble fades beneath the polished sheen of the music. They put it all on display, the “private moments” in song and dialogue; witty, wistful and harkening to the days of dust bowl troubadours or vaudeville shtick; all of it as real as any lie.

For Common Rotation, this is the place where it breathes, a true band, a gathering of talents presenting its wares; old-fashioned, uncommon, familiar.

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Eric Hutchinson: The Thin White Jukebox

Aquarian Weekly 6/20/11 Buzz

THE THIN WHITE JUKEBOX
Eric Hutchinson Hits The Throwback Road

Eric Hutchinson makes albums like guideposts, allowing him to check out where he’s been and where’s he’s going. The 31 year-old singer/songwriter has spent the last three years since his debut studio effort, Sounds Like This reflecting on his maturation as an artist and life as a rising star, and the results are found on the infectiously soulful and auspiciously titled, Moving Up/Living Down. Loaded with rock-solid melodies and rib-sticking rhythms, every track on Hutchinson’s latest tour de force is more than a collection of songs; it is quite literally a soundtrack for a high-energy stage show that is fully realized on his current 41-city American tour.

Eric Hutchinson

“I was thinking a lot about the live show when I was writing songs for this record,” Hutchinson explains from a quiet hotel room in Ames, Iowa before his show at Iowa State. “Having been on the road for a few years now and wishing I had written something to take the energy to somewhere else, it was fun to write a song like ‘The Basement’ and then see how it lets the band and the audience get there.”

Through the prism of what appears on repeated listens as a living homage to the best of the Atlantic, Stax and Motown sides of the Sixties, Moving Up/Living Down spans the rhythm and blues genre from every angle, to the rousing Isley Brothers meets Sam & Dave driving rat-ta-tat-tat of “The Basement”, which lyrically pays tribute to among others, James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson in a raucous tale of heading down to where they “really wanna to rock and roll” to the bouncing vocal elasticity of “The People I Know”, which rings the Stevie Wonder bell as well as it can be rung.

“It’s always been in there,” Hutchinson says when asked about his playfully derivative approach. “I kind of describe myself as a soul singer at this point, because ‘soul singing’ is so much about having it come from inside, that gut feeling, and that’s what I’m looking for when I’m writing songs.

“A lot of what this album is for me is coming to grips with what I am rather than what I’d love to be as a singer,” cites Hutchinson. “I love The Strokes, but I’m never going to be Julian Casablancas and I’m okay with that. I’m comfortable being me, processing my influences and having it come out through my own filter.”

Hutchinson has always been a student of song styles and uses his education well on Moving Up/Living Down, as he flirts with Todd Rundgren smooth in “I’m Not Cool” and channels a 1983 version of Prince for “Living in the Afterlife”. Yet these well-crafted compositions are no mere imitations. There is something wholly original and 21st century to Hutchinson’s stripped down approach, which he honed while building his career entirely solo on piano and acoustic guitar.

It’s what Hutchinson described to me in 2006 as “acoustic soul” after I sought him out following a stirring opening stint for Joe Jackson in New York City followed by a successful residency at the Cutting Room later that year. Hutchinson, a slave to the boogie in his head, used his instruments as percussive foundations, strumming or bouncing off the keys to keep the beat and allowing his vocal arrangements to soar above it. It was a natural evolution to his throwback flirtations so prevalent on Moving Up/Living Down as well as its predecessor, Sounds Like This (2007), a truly masterful pop effort. But to his credit, Hutchinson did not merely rest on his well-earned laurels.

“The big thing for me when I was just starting out I would think; ‘If I could just get to this spot, I’ll be happy – play this venue or sell this many records’, and as things began to go well for me I realized it’s a moving target, there isn’t just ‘this place’, there is no end. You just got to keep goin’, I guess.”

Sounds Like This was written as a solo musician and I got guys to play on it,” Hutchinson recalls. “This time I knew I’d be working with a band and it changed my approach, and now I’m excited about people seeing the show. It’s really hummin’, more and more energy, and I’m especially excited for someone like yourself who saw me do the old show, ’cause I’m still trying to find ways to have that personality come through, but also make it be a rock show.”

Two weeks later at the Highline Ballroom on the south-end of Chelsea, Hutchinson and his band – Andrew Perusi on bass, drummer, Steven Robinson and Elliott Blaufuss on keyboards and guitar – proved his point; from the opening fanfare and grand entrance announcement to song after song of heavy funk, sly soul and a wry wink at several forms of reggae, accentuated at two intervals when taking turns at The Beatles, “Obla-Di, Obla-Da” and Sublime’s “Santeria”. Rather than merely performing, something he aimed for after spending his time during the writing of the album attending concerts by stalwarts, Bruce Springsteen and Prince, Hutchinson looked passionately joyful, a wide-eyed boy aghast that this was all hitting home.

As promised, along with playing every one of his most popular numbers, including the inescapably hummable, “Rock & Roll”, the head-bobbing, “OK, It’s Alright with Me”, and the cleverly structured, “All Over Now”, Hutchinson chided the audience (when a young woman shouted, “I love you!”, Hutchinson began asking her if that’s such a healthy thing to get involved with someone that he hasn’t met and already loved him; “That’s gonna be a strange first date!”) and spun touching tales about playing for change in Union Square in 2001. “Where the fuck were you guys back then?” he asked, smiling.

All the while, as I leaned against the top step of the waitress stand and glanced over the packed house of bouncing heads, I could swear, especially after a wise quip or classic “Hutch” tongue-in-cheek comment, I saw Hutchinson look over to me and smirk, as if to silently say, “I told you so.”

The audience was treated to one moment of ‘the old show’, as Hutchinson removed the veil of inspiration and went right to the source, strumming out a beautifully tapered rendition of Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears”.

Moving Up/Living DownWhich brings us back to Moving Up/Living Down, which, according to random e-mail updates Hutchinson regaled me with throughout the process over the past year was not only a gradual evolution from burgeoning club act to legitimate pop star, it was a painstaking battle to find the right musical mix, something he achieved after a random encounter with an industry legend.

“I pretty much had the entire record done and then I had this chance meeting with Quincy Jones,” recalls Hutchinson. “We were at this charity event and they made him sit with me in a VIP section for a few minutes, and I couldn’t let the chance go by without asking him about all the stuff he had done, Thriller in particular, and he said, ‘When we had Thriller finished we picked the five best songs and we threw everything else out and found four more good songs.’ And I thought that was a great idea and went back and tried to dig deeper and make the songs be as good as possible, and one of those became “Watching You Watch Him”.

The first single off the record, “Watching You Watch Him” is Hutchinson at his lyrical best; playing the lovable loser in what he calls an “F’d up lover’s triangle where no one is happy.”

It was Hutchinson’s self-effacing lyrics that first drew me to his work and many of the songs on Moving Up/Living Down center on the irony of maturing or growing in a fish bowl of constant touring. “I had to get off the road and back to reality in New York where no one cares who you are,” laughs Hutchinson.

“I’m Not Cool”, “The People I Know” Best Days of Our Lives” illustrate that all this maturing and growing has him ending up in an emotion cul de sac. In the ska-fueled and strikingly honest, “Not There Yet” the message is more direct, to the point where his “I’m getting there, but I’m not there yet” refrain sounds eerily like he’s singing “not dead yet,” as if the protagonist is fighting the process.

Hutchinson concluded our conversation by slightly disagreeing with my assessment. It’s not so much fighting, as surrendering. “It’s about being infinitely more happy thinking about things circularly rather than linearly. The big thing for me when I was just starting out I would think; ‘If I could just get to this spot, I’ll be happy – play this venue or sell this many records’, and as things began to go well for me I realized it’s a moving target, there isn’t just ‘this place’, there is no end. You just got to keep goin’, I guess.”

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Dick Wagner: Invisible Virtuoso

Aquarian Weekly
5/9/12 Buzz

THE INVISIBLE VIRTUOSO
Guitar Legend Dick Wagner Bears His Soul in New Memoir

In a 1975 interview, conducted when he was musical arranger, band leader and co-lead guitarist for rock legend, Alice Cooper’s record-breaking Welcome to my Nightmare world tour, Dick Wagner, then 33 years-old, told the New Musical Express; “I don’t personally give a shit about being a star; I just want to be a good guitar player. But if that means becoming a star then I’ll become one on a natural basis. I go on pure gut feeling; I was invited to play on Bowie’s tour, but I turned it down even though I really liked David, because it didn’t feel right. One thing I’ll never do is let this business make me crazy. I always try to pace myself when I’m on the road, and when I get some time off I go hang out with my friends and have nothin’ to do with any of it.”

Dick Wagner

Nearly 40 years later, approaching 70, Wagner has never changed his tune about being a star, which he achieved divergently through a lasting respect from rabid rock fans and industry insiders, especially fellow musicians, and long surpassed being a good guitar player throughout a career filled with incredible high and lows. The part about the business not making him crazy, however, was a little more difficult. Serious life threatening and relationship damaging sexual and drug addictions were a constant undercurrent to one of rock’s most compelling arcs.

It is all well documented – dark reflections, humorous anecdotes and insightful memories – in Wagner’s tightly presented memoir, Not Only Women Bleed, titled after one of his most memorable compositions, the achingly poignant, “Only Women Bleed”, a song most known, as many of Wagner’s best work, for someone else.

“I tried to avoid bragging on myself in this book,” Wagner explains, sitting comfortably in his desert home in Arizona. His voice, ragged from years of smoke, drink, and vocal shredding, still evokes the rough affect of his Detroit youth. “It would have been easier to bullshit, but people can read through that. It’s just a story of a human life. I mean, the things that happened to me are unique because they happened to me, but they could have happened to anyone.”

A survivor of serious drug exploits and, more recently, surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain, Wagner humbly reminisces about the days when he was best known for being one of the top studio and touring guitar sidemen in the world; asked to lead international tours for Alice Cooper, jump-starting Lou Reed’s solo live career and subbing on lead guitar (in some cases un-credited) for Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (Get Your Wings) and KISS’s Ace Frehley (Destroyer). His songwriting partnership with Alice Cooper, who in his heartfelt preface to the book, once filed Wagner under “guitar players I’d like to steal”, produced some of the most theatrical tracks of the era and hit ballads like “Only Women Bleed”, “I Never Cry”, “You and Me”, and “How You Gonna See Me Now?”

Yet many rock fans would fail to pick him out of a line-up.

“I’m an artist and have been since I started doing this,” Wagner insists. “For me, it’s about playing well and doing different projects and being able to handle all these different kinds of music and being able to play something great every time. That was my goal… always.”

A studio engineer who, before working with Wagner for the first time in the mid-Seventies, idly queried if he was as good as advertised to famed producer, Bob Ezrin, who used Wagner either exclusively or strategically on most of his projects. Ezrin simply raised his eyebrows and said, “He’ll play, you’ll hear, you’ll know.”

“I’m an artist and have been since I started doing this,” Wagner insists. “For me, it’s about playing well and doing different projects and being able to handle all these different kinds of music and being able to play something great every time. That was my goal…always.”

As if there were a red emergency phone always near-by, Wagner recounts his guitar gun slinging days when he could get a call at any time from either coast and have to be ready to perform on records that were huge hits; “Sometimes I would know a couple of days ahead about a session, and sometimes, like for instance with Aerosmith, I got the call when I was sitting in my apartment at The Plaza, grabbed my guitar and went down to the studio.” Then, after absorbing the track, under pressure and with a looming minute-by-minute deadline, Wagner would sit in a corner and craft his part. “My philosophy in playing on somebody else’s record was get inside and learn the song and treat your guitar playing as an extension of what the melody of the song is and the mood, the attitude of the song; staying, of course, within the confines of what the chord changes are. There are limitations, but you also have complete freedom when they just give you a spot and say, ‘Go for it’, you got a chance then to come up with something that will be lasting.”

Wagner’s whirlwind rock and roll life, as depicted in is his book, was a rollercoaster ride of dizzying proportions. None of it – the women, the hijinks, the bizarre to the sublime – is left out. The reader is invited backstage and on stage, riding on the tour buses, cavorting in the hotel rooms and sequestered inside the studios, while also crawling through an addict’s shadow of desperation and amazingly find a guiding light.

Not Only Women Bleed harkens back to the burgeoning Detroit rock scene filled with the who’s who of late-Sixties and early Seventies pioneers of what champion rock critic, Lester Bangs once dubbed “the rattly clankings” of blue-collar, assembly-line heavy metal; Iggy and the Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, the MC5, Ted Nugent and more. Wagner’s slick leads and becoming a master composer of both blistering jams and tender ballads penned for such local acts as The Frost and Ursa Major earned him the repudiation of guitar virtuoso, jumping into difficult back-up band jobs to expand the primacy of the stars.

Rock n' Roll AnimalThe best example being the searing duel-guitar suite that opens Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” with fellow guitar great, Steve Hunter that appears on the classic live album Rock and Roll Animal, which inspired a generation of axemen. According to reports at the time, Reed was so jealous of the glowing press and wild accolade from concertgoers directed towards Wagner and Hunter he sacked the entire band. The record went gold, prompting RCA to release second volume, Lou Reed Live a year later, which lead Wagner and Hunter, along with Reed’s entire touring band, to lend its magic to the new Alice Cooper solo project and its ensuing massive tour.

When asked to describe the guitar as if it were a seminal relationship in his life, much like he does with all of his friends and colleagues in the pages of Not Only Women Bleed, Wagner does not hesitate. “It’s really like a lifelong marriage with a woman who is your soul mate, who is always there for you and you always carry her with you in your heart. I used to sleep with my guitar. I don’t mean sex. I used to take it to bed with me, so that if I woke up in the middle of the night I could play it. I had a boom box I kept beside the bed and I had these tapes with backing tracks for the blues and lie there in bed for hours and play guitar to it. That’s how I learned how to play, to completely involve myself in it. It’s like a marriage. It’s the two of you; a way to hide, express yourself and go outward. It can become all things. The guitar has been that important to me.”

But although defined by the instrument, if not secretly becoming among the best guitarists of his generation, Wagner’s story is that of survival, both personal and professional. Even in the midst of recovery from brain surgery in 2011, he worked on two songs for Alice Cooper’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the sequel to his and Wagner’s collaborative 1975 masterpiece. And as Wagner reflects now, as he does in Not Only Women Bleed, the long, hard but rewarding road can lead to better places; “When I wrote the last chapter of the book in recovery from brain surgery, it was a completely cathartic moment in my life and it really made me feel kinder, closer to humanity. It very much was a bearing of my soul. Without sounding pretentious, I have to say I understood something lying in that hospital that I never understood before.”

Wagner’s unique rock and roll journey is a touchstone in American music history, even if much of it has been behind the scenes or inside the hub of creativity, and it is about time it receives its due.

But for Wagner, he can take it or leave it. For him, it is the camaraderie, the inventive pursuits and his beloved instrument that has fueled him and the pages of his fine book all these years later.

“I received a lot of ‘non-credit’ credits and some attention over the years, but my favorite may be one time when I took my sons to see Aerosmith at the San Antonio Convention Center,” Wagner fondly recalls. “Steven Tyler put his arm around me in front of all those people backstage and said, ‘This is the guy who helped us sell three million records’. I really appreciate that more than anything.”

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Why The Fuck Isn’t Kiss In The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

Aquarian Weekly 10/6/10 REALITY CHECK

WHY THE FUCK ISN’T KISS IN THE ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME? or Why The Hell Is There a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame In The First Place?

Boys, I’m not gonna go on and on about this fucking spirit shit. I’ll talk about the blues and influences and how I dig you guys and bing-bam-boom, I’ll be out of there. It’s just fucking rock n’ roll, after all. – Keith Richards to the members of ZZ Top backstage at the 2004 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Committee (whatever the hell that is), has seen fit to nominate Alice Cooper, sixteen years after his, or if you prefer the band to the character, its eligibility. This makes what is already an abject mockery of what even the most casual observer of the genre would consider downright silly.Kiss Alive! For those of us who cherish its everlasting effect on our souls, it is an insult. After all, The Coop, an icon and creative pioneer in 1970s hard rock, is as influential to rock and roll history as Elvis Presley and his Caucasian-hijacking of an African-American invention is to the ’50s, The Beatles and its image-driven cultural phenomenon is to the ’60s, Madonna and her sexually-charged chameleon star-trip is to the 80s’, and the spit-in-the-face of all that is holy Nirvana in the ’90s.

For several decades, Alice Cooper was a drunken, spiteful, sloppy, defiant, obscene, deafening burlesque freak show that cared less for anything healthy and descent than anyone or anything imaginable; or as he put it to me in this magazine last year, “You couldn’t have a rock and roll drama without a villain.” That, my friends, is rock and roll in a nutshell. Refusing to recognize that impugns any point of celebrating it.

Shit, anyone failing to list “School’s Out” in their Top Ten of most on-the-money rock and roll songs has no fucking clue what the entire rock and roll trip is about; or more likely the case in the realm of the high-brow geeks running this vapid dog & pony show in Cleveland, got off the train with anything post-Traffic.

Turns out Cooper’s drinking buddy, Jim Morrison was right about handing the rebel stick over to the Madison Avenue suits and Hollywood posers who would likely render whatever erect pecker or moist pussy it manifested into a flaccid, dried up twat.

Keith Richards, the godfather of all that is modern rock and roll, and the man for whom even death recoils in horror, would concur. At least if you judge it from the look of a man who’d worked his ass off concocting an outlaw life of violent upheaval and massive substance abuse into gorgeous riffs of heavenly power only to be dumped in his waning years headlong into presenting goddamned ZZ Top to a bunch of gut-sagging, hair-thinned cretins posing as rock critics boozing beside the putrid gaggle of industry turds dressed for prom night.

Video evidence of the event shows Keith looking sick to his stomach and cackling like a hyena at the absurdity of his mission, and doing it right in the heavily-bearded faces of the band he was to induct into this laughing stock of an embalming center.

Keith and Jimmy Morrison knew what those of us who ever cared for rock and roll know; Alice Cooper is the real deal; whether the “keepers of the flame” deign to admit it or not. The Coop and his band kicked the ass and took the names to the tune of record numbers when they ruled the world, and there was a time when they sure as hell did. For a few years no one manipulated our wicked zeitgeist or exploited its most precious disgust better than Alice Cooper.

The only act that even comes close is Kiss. And guess what? Kiss has never even been nominated.

Kiss.

The biggest-selling live act in the history of rock and roll, which not only emerged full-fledged from the gloriously outlandish Alice Cooper excess-driven, shock-treatment womb, but also liberated the genre from its deadening artsy-fartsy, late-sixties to early-seventies jam-band, self-indulgence — predating the usually lauded Bruce Springsteen and the soon-to-seek vengeance of Punk.

Sorry if condescending scribes at the hippie journalists’ convention thumb their coke-addled noses at it, but Kiss stomped the terra without regret and didn’t beg your permission.

Kiss is rock and roll, as much as Parliament is funk, the Bee Gees disco, Michael Jackson pop and Joni Mitchell folk, all of whom have already been inducted into this so-called HOF.

Kiss was, and stupefying still is theater, pomp and bombast; a distorted blitzkrieg off-spring of a Jerry Lee Lewis piano assault, a Jimi Hendrix guitar fire, The Who’s instrumental auto-destruction, an Iggy Pop chest carving, and whatever crazy crap Peter Gabriel or Frank Zappa ever dreamed up. Grease paint, pyrotechnics, leather, and juvenile odes to sex and mayhem are a recipe for rock and roll greatness, and yet for some reason it is trumped by The Pretenders, Fleetwood Mac, and REM — all acts I enjoy and certainly belong in whatever goofy palaver dinosaurs like Jann Wenner fabricate these days, but not at the exclusion of motherfucking Kiss.

I’m sorry, kids, nothing that aforementioned trio produced approaches the anthemic core of the rock and roll gut like “Rock N’ Roll All Nite”, never mind the brilliant fist-pump of “Detroit Rock City”.

Recently a friend, while speaking of his time in Cleveland, asked if I’d visited the HOF museum. To which I followed with a twenty-minute diatribe culminating in the notion that any such asinine endeavor calling itself a rock and roll institution (whatever the hell that is) and claiming to celebrate those whose fame is worthy of its blessed enshrinement, but yet so completely incapable of seeing the worth and testament of titans like Kiss, is nothing I need to see. It’s akin to going to a pizzeria and getting served celery.

And let’s be honest, the entire concept of having a shrine or snobbish observance of rock & roll is antithetical to everything the damn art form stands for in the first place, and second, and most disturbing, is it confirms what purist caretaker, Lester Bangs predicted and oft-times celebrated as its demise propagated by the over-intellectualizing arrogance of the “rock critic elite”.

Barely aware of the comings and goings of something as moronically feckless as a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, I was unaware as recently as a week ago that neither Alice Cooper nor Kiss had been included, yet the very bands they helped launch, specifically Van Halen and AC/DC, waltzed in before them. This seemed beyond ludicrous, until I saw the roll call of acts that have preceded their groundbreaking, hit-making, record-smashing concert-receipt resume.

Metallica? Without Alice Cooper and Kiss, where is Metallica beyond a garage in suburban San Francisco? But then at least it’s a rock band, unlike folkie Pete Seeger, gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, soul master Curtis Mayfield, torch song goddess Billie Holiday, crooner Nat “King” Cole, country outlaw Johnny Cash, or for the sake of the Christ, The O’Jays, Jelly Roll Morton, , Brenda Lee, Bill Willis & His Texas Playboys, or fucking Bob Seger.

Bob fucking Seger? What’s next Barry Manilow and Bread?

When Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were playing backyard barbecues in Gainesville and Elvis Costello was learning to snarl with horn-rimmed glasses, Kiss was plowing through America and everywhere making noxious rip-roaring cacophony — making movies, starring in comic books, and turning pop culture sideways.

Sorry if condescending scribes at the hippie journalists’ convention thumb their coke-addled noses at it, but Kiss stomped the terra without regret and didn’t beg your permission.

Oh, and this year’s nominees — alongside the long-overlooked Alice and in place of Kiss? Dr. John, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Donavan, and Donna Summer.

I rest my case.

 

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Rob Monte Says Good-Bye (for now)

Aquarian Weekly 9/15/10 REALITY CHECK

DEEP TANK TO WEIRD BLOOD Jersey Shore Music Icon Rob Monte Says Good-Bye (For Now)

It’s a steamy, late-afternoon on the Friday before the titular summer’s end and Robert Montesdeoca, aka Rob Monte, The Columbian Freak Boy is about to head southeast to do what he has done for the past 20 years; sing, prance and entertain over every inch of a packed barroom. He will do it as he always has; in front of a popular New Jersey rock band. He will make a lot of money for some and some for himself. It is business as usual for the grizzled stage warrior. This time, however, is different. This time will be his last. The long, rock & roll road ends for the man most know as merely Monte this Labor Day Weekend 2010. He is calling it quits after some 20 years of running amok on the famed Jersey Rock Circuit; much of it a blur and all of it chock full of what he politely calls “reckless abandon” while “feeling very comfortable playing it by the seat of my ass.”

Rob Monte“I am one-hundred percent ready” he tells me when I ask if this is truly it. “But for awhile I felt guilty saying it aloud or to anyone, because I might disappoint them.”

That’s always been the nut for Rob Monte, who took every show, hell, every song to be a long walk to the gallows, as if tomorrow was a rumor and squeezing every last inch of a Saturday night meant a little bit more than everything.

There is weird blood running in the man’s veins, much of it tainted with alcohol and the gripping fear that someone in his presence might not be having the time of their lives. It’s a rough gig spending nearly an entirety of an adult life convincing audiences that infinite merriment is tangible while the clock has other ideas.

“It was a unique period,” he exhales, before packing his kitbag of lunacy for one last go-round, two-decades of memory working its way through the fog. “Beer funnels? You can’t do that in clubs anymore, bro! People think that was the dark ages — hundreds of people smoking in clubs? The drinking and driving? The complete chaos?”

His voice cackles over the phone line and it sends a chill down my spine. I have heard that laugh before, a broken gravel of a coughing guffaw, fused with a kind of mischief that knows soon there will be danger afoot. “Whatever the formula was, it worked,” he admits with confidence. “Even with everyone trying to reel me in, there I was deep in some Irish drinking contest off stage, while the band figured it out.”

And the “figuring out” is what made the incredible professionals Monte has played with over the years so fascinating. There are far too many to name here, but know they are brave subjects in an improbable conquering horde of weekend marauders just the same.

“The bands? Four sober guys following along, hanging with me, I want to thank all of them. Thank them or apologize!” Monte laughs, but then there is a serious shift to his tone. “Hey, there was trouble sometimes, but once the club read the register they’d forgive us.”

Monte’s story is hardly unique. It is but one of thousands played out across this great land, where somewhere tonight there are hard-bitten dreamers tossing about elusive glories in cover tunes and original numbers; piano troubadours and harp-mouthed folkies and jazz cats and sing-song beauties putting on one more show for one more dollar and one more round of applause. But here in New Jersey, when a man steps down from his well-earned throne as King of Long Beach Island, it is pretty big news. For the mythical, radical, hysterical place I once called Clubland in my book, Deep Tank Jersey, it is monumental.

As far as icons go, if there is such an animal trolling the sordid corridors once inhabited by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, Rob Monte sure as hell is. He has fronted several bands of varying degrees of reputation and earning power for the past two decades, the most lucrative and history making is DogVoices, the birth of which during its most lavishly successful summer is depicted in the aforementioned book by yours truly. Therefore, Monte’s swansong is also a somewhat selfish personal tribute for this space. It can be argued that without Deep Tank Jersey and the wild events of the summer of 1995, the access and honesty of the original five members of DogVoices, and all those clubs and roadies and fans and wonderfully colorful hangers-on, there may not be a Reality Check News & Information Desk.

There is weird blood running in the man’s veins, much of it tainted with alcohol and the gripping fear that someone in his presence might not be having the time of their lives. It’s a rough gig spending nearly an entirety of an adult life convincing audiences that infinite merriment is tangible while the clock has other ideas.

So blame the whole damn thing on Monte, who was foolish enough to allow the sordid tale of young men treading the floorboards from Atlantic City to Clifton to be recorded for posterity.

Lord knows it is hard for me to believe a word of it today, and I wrote the damn thing. Worse still, I lived it. Barely. Like most of the poor souls who stepped into a Jersey Rock Club looking for a good time but were assaulted with a strange combination of burlesque and mud wrestling soaked in gallons of beer and sweat. Rob Monte the ringmaster of it all, from midnight ocean dives to launches from the odd hotel roof, impromptu strip shows and Tequila-shot binges, bar dancing and a rabble of dawn seekers thrown into the spotlight for an inch of what Monte has come to call home.

It is a home he never takes for granted as he continued to review his incredible run at a pace that would have killed several if not all other men not named Keith Richards.

“I plan on playing my last gig at the Ringside Pub in January,” he says with pride. “The owner, Bob Harper is a friend and mentor. I started there, and I should end there.”

Along with the Ringside, a modest but hopping rock venue in the hamlet of Caldwell, there is the now-defunct Wally’s and Nickel’s Alley, Wild Mike’s, the Wreck Room, and the legendary Mother’s, all of them outlasted by the unsinkable Columbian Freak Boy.

Then there is the cash cow for any serious full-time cover band; the Jersey Shore, where for 18 consecutive years Monte has plied his trade at Nardi’s, the Sea Shell and of course, Bar A. “I have to play Bar A once more in December,” Monte says. “My craziest stunts may have happened there. I broke ribs jumping off that balcony. The owner, Tom Jannarone has always been there for me.”

The center of Monte’s universe for nearly 20 years has been Long Beach Island, known to many in the tri-state area as an interesting amalgam of quiet, sunny family getaways and completely maddening midnight parties, the latter of which became the central force in an impressive career of playing popular songs of the day with a splash of carnival folly.

“The Quarterdeck, Sea Shell, Nardi’s, Joe Pop’s, you could play over four days without ever leaving the island,” Monte chuckles, as if struggling to recall earlier triumphs.

Now, placing it all into perspective, he can securely move into a fulltime career mentoring younger bands with his newly formed Monte Booking Agency, where the man himself tutors his acts to steer clear of the Monte Method.

“No way Monte could survive now,” he says, speaking in the third person as if this Monte creature is a thing of fiction. “Most of the bands I book now don’t know about the Deep Tank Jersey years. I tell them to do the opposite!”

And what about any parting words, a final stage dive or perhaps a Daffy Duck self-immolation jag?

He laughs again and sighs; “I cannot plan anything. It goes against everything I’ve done as an entertainer. So there’ll be no final song. No canned speech.”

Whatever it will be, its toll will end one part of an implausible career, close an era, and provide another reason for those who were there to recall the past.

For me, I wish good luck to my friend, a long-gone protagonist in my first published work.

And good luck to the rest of the Weird Blood who dare scour the depths of what is left of the Deep Tank.

 

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Dan Bern at City Winery 2010

 

Aquarian Weekly 7/7/10

LIVING SONGBOOK ON PARADE
An Evening with Dan Bern, City Winery

SOHO, NYC 6/19/10

There is the Dan Bern you must listen to; the storming riffs and tender shifts of progression that bed captivating melodies, all the better to ferry along the oddly profound witticism – a seemingly endless musical array of parody, satire and tribute. Then there is the one upon the stage, swaying and strumming as the quintessential portrait of a wandering troubadour – the room sufficiently primed by a raucous NYC crowd acting as the perfect chorus for his mini tragic comedies.

Dan BernWhen the prolific Bern is on his game there is really no one better in any genre. The composer of hundreds of ditties over two decades and sixteen records, jumping from folk to country to rock to whatever swims in and out of his yawning transom. He was in fine voice at the City Winery on a sultry Saturday night in the big town, donning a black vest and blue jeans, a gray cabby’s hat atop his head. The less defiant, dare I say, more mature singer-songwriter emerged anew, playing hauntingly arranged versions of his most gripping songs like “I Need You” and “One Real Thing”.

Later the performance expanded into a beautifully accompanied harmonizing romp, as Bern was ably joined by his usual touring companion, Paul Kuhn and opening act, Common Rotation, a talented Long Island trio which seemed to have been gathered together especially for a distinct performance balance of sonic comportment.

Brand new selections, most memorably the riotously clever “Osama in Obama Land” and “Talkin’ Tea Party Blues”, and old favorites, “Black Tornado”, “Breath” and of course, “Jerusalem” raised an already high bar for Bern, who is fresh off two successful songwriting jags for rock comedies, Walk Hard and Get Him To The Greek and appears to have put a new sheen on his best work.

An excellent sample of the present show, which one can only hope unfurls into a longer tour, can be found on Bern’s latest release, Dan Bern Live in Los Angeles.

Having had the pleasure to see Dan Bern ply his trade over the past eight years in every possible venue from a goddamned boat to a half-painted hotel room to political rallies, college campuses and stuffy studios, the Bowery Ball Room to Carnegie Hall, and even his own artist getaway in the desert, he has never sounded better or his songs provided a more deserving exposition than in this most recent incarnation.

The living songbook is once again a must listen and see.

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